As a young boy on vacation in the mountains with his family, Bill Viola nearly drowned in a lake. He describes the experience as “… the most beautiful world I’ve ever seen in my life” and “without fear,” and “peaceful.” Perhaps this experience colors his work, which focuses on themes such birth, death, love, emotion, humanism, and spirituality. Water and allusions to drowning often appear in his work as well.
Viola’s work draws meaning and inspiration from several mystical traditions, including Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism, and Islamic Sufism, giving his work a kind of religious transcendental quality. Viola also explores notions of duality, the idea that you can’t understand what you’re looking at unless you also know it’s opposite. Often Viola’s videos contain themes such as life and death, light and dark, stressed and calm, loud and quiet, etc.
Viola’s work often exhibits a painterly quality. Like painting, Viola’s work requires patience in order to fully appreciate it. To achieve this painterly quality in his work, Viola uses an ultra-slow motion video recording technique, which encourages the viewer to sink into the image to better connect with the meanings contained within it. Grandiosity, ambitiousness, and a striving toward meaning characterize Viola’s work as he attempts to ponder the deeper, bigger themes of human existence.